In a recent monologue, Fox News host Tucker Carlson told his prime-time audience that “people you trust, people you probably voted for, have spent weeks minimizing what is clearly a very serious problem.” Without naming names, Carlson indirectly denigrated President Donald Trump’s inadequate response to the ongoing outbreak of the coronavirus in the United States. Here’s what Carlson said:
Carlson’s March 9 monologue spread across digital and print outlets -- it was written up by CNN, The Washington Post, The Daily Beast, HuffPost, Salon, The Wrap, The Guardian, and New York magazine. His comments were largely framed as a departure from the pro-Trump sycophancy of his network colleagues (most notably, an unhinged rant that same night by Fox Business’ Trish Regan, whose show has since been put on hiatus).
This wasn’t the first time Carlson has criticized the Trump administration’s response to the crisis, just the first time that many prestige outlets seem to have noticed. In fact, he was much more direct during his show last Friday, calling the White House response “uneven and limp.”
He was being generous. The Trump administration has gone against the advice of experts at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) by allowing infected Americans to fly home along with uninfected passengers, sent workers from the Department of Health and Human Services to greet evacuated Americans without proper protection, bungled the rollout of mass testing for the disease, and put Vice President Mike Pence -- whose mishandling of an HIV outbreak in Indiana during his time as the governor made the problem severely worse -- in charge of coordinating the federal response.
Any positive coverage which attempts to recast Carlson’s tepid criticism of these spectacular failures as some sort of maverick truth-telling is truly unearned. First, he refused to even name those responsible for the government’s failure on this issue in his apparently newsworthy monologue. Praising him for his comments only reinforces the uneven playing field created by the network’s complete absence of ethical standards, which allows Fox News’ opinion hosts to ignore basic journalistic norms. It’s also gone largely unnoticed that on February 4, Carlson allowed White House press secretary Stephanie Grisham to praise the president’s “decisive action.” He offered no pushback or follow-up to her claim that Trump has “empowered his agencies … to get out and inform the public, and work with the public, and really tell everybody what is going on” -- the same sort of sycophantic pro-Trump claim he would later be lauded for criticizing in his March 9 show.
Even a cursory look at Carlson’s larger coronavirus coverage shows that his impersonation of a brave truth-teller is simply a put-on to disguise his usual brand of racist fearmongering, fringe theory dabbling, and reckless disregard for science and data.
According to an internal Media Matters database, Carlson first covered the coronavirus on January 23. Unsurprisingly, he made racist attacks, blaming the outbreak on Chinese culture, claiming that it is common for people there to eat “koalas and snakes and bats and dogs” and lamenting that “we have to pretend all cultures are the same and all behaviors are the same, but it’s not.”
Carlson has repeated this racist talking point in his subsequent coronavirus coverage, and it was dutifully echoed when he hosted a right-wing Washington Examiner reporter with no obvious public health expertise and a history of taking “surreptitious fetish shots” around Capitol Hill.
Carlson has also insisted on using racist language to characterize the virus itself and used the public health crisis to advance his preferred narratives around right-wing grievances. He has repeatedly referred to it as the “Chinese coronavirus,” a practice the director of the CDC has described as “absolutely wrong and inappropriate.” He attacked the CDC for its research on social determinants of health, suggesting it has taken resources away from pandemic preparedness while failing to note that the Trump administration has gutted teams and funding meant to prepare for this exact situation. He also called it “totally insane” to question the lack of diversity on Trump’s coronavirus task force. And he blamed “diversity” and “wokeness” for the spread of coronavirus on February 24, declaring: “Identity politics trumped public health and not for the first time. Wokeness is a cult. They would let you die before they admitted that diversity is not our strength.”
Carlson has even repurposed his obsession with attacking people experiencing homelessness to fit the current coronavirus crisis. On March 3, he hosted Jason Rantz, a Seattle radio host who has exploited the growing crisis as an opportunity for punching down toward people with less resources than himself, to fearmonger that people without homes may be spreading the virus “at a higher than normal rate” by “jumping on buses because they can ride for free, they are going to public restrooms, they are going into public libraries.” Carlson responded with a joke labeling people experiencing homelessness “a public health risk.”
Beyond Carlson’s tried and true staples of explicit racism and cruelty, he’s also been promoting an unsubstantiated fringe theory about the origins of the coronavirus. He’s repeatedly floated the debunked idea -- which has also been embraced by Sen. Tom Cotton (R-AR) and former Trump adviser Steve Bannon -- that the coronavirus was engineered in a research laboratory outside of Wuhan, China, and then leaked into the public either by mistake or with malicious intent by the Chinese government. There is consensus among scientific experts that this is a baseless conspiracy theory.
Legitimate media outlets do a huge favor to Carlson when they pat him on the back for his polite criticism of the Trump administration’s response to coronavirus. In doing so, they’re boosting the ugly stuff too, lending credence to his racist fearmongering and unsubstantiated theories without critically acknowledging that these are two sides of the same coin. In the monologue in which Carlson called the administration’s response “uneven and limp,” he gives away the game as to what he’s really after here: articulating a “governing agenda in the age of the Chinese coronavirus” which is to “abandon globalism,” and references Trump’s xenophobic Republican National Convention speech from 2016 while making this point. Carlson’s tactic is to use his show as a lobbying shop to push the president in the direction of hard-line nationalism. Sometimes this requires a light sprinkling of criticism. That he is willing to do so does not merit praise.
Carlson already successfully fooled his media colleagues earlier this year when he was widely credited with playing a role in stopping further military action in Iran. But if they continue this pattern of elevating Carlson every time he sounds even the slightest bit at odds with Sean Hannity et al, mainstream media will only be helping him to gain more power and credibility to advance the ideological project he shares with hard-line allies like Stephen Miller and Tom Cotton: racist nationalism and the scapegoating of people who are less powerful than he is.
Mainstream media outlets looking for Carlson’s show to hold the Trump administration’s inept coronavirus response to account must realize that at its core, it’s a sham orchestrated by a master of cynicism and misdirection.
Anyway, Matthew McConaughey's character in Wolf of Wall Street explains the art of the fugazi better than I could ever hope to.